esther calling

‘My Brother’s Wife Ruined Our Relationship’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin?. She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — the show is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Message

One thing that I’ve been facing for a while, maybe for the past six, seven years now, is the problems I have with my sister-in-law. I mean, she is a lovely person and she is my brother’s love, but I have difficulties accepting her and connecting to her, and somehow I see her as something between me and my brother. My brother and I used to have a very strong connection before her, and I come from a culture where families are connected. And for example, this year they called me to say happy birthday to me, and I couldn’t even talk to her, and I just tried to be polite, and I texted her, “I’m sorry, I’m out, I cannot talk on the phone.” I just can’t let her in.

The Phone Call

Esther Perel: Hello. 

Caller: Hi, Esther.

Esther: So when I listen to you, I’ll tell you what goes through my mind, with questions, right? 

Caller: Okay.

Esther: Is it this particular woman? Or would it have been any woman that you would have experienced this severing of the tight bond that exists between your brother and you? Or, how can my brother who loves me so deeply, choose someone so different from me? What does that say about his love for me or about how he sees me that he could choose someone who is so not what I am. 

Caller: Yes, exactly.

Esther: Which one? I have one more but you can start with those two. 

Caller: I think to be honest with you, he had other girlfriends. But this particular one, I think this is the person that she is, she’s so different from me.

Esther: In what way? 

Caller: She is quite loud. She is, to me, a complete attention seeker. She somehow has drinking problems. I haven’t been in social activities with them anymore because every time we used to go to parties together, I used to get a terrible headache and leave the party. She has some certain behaviors that I feel hurt my brother. To me, it’s so painful but at the same time I cannot talk about it to him because he has made his choice and I have to respect that.

Esther: And where is he in the picture? Because this is a triangle. 

Caller: Well he tries to avoid everything. We just had one conversation about this triangle, as you put it, and he said, “Listen, I don’t want to get between you and her. Whatever you feel that is happening, you need to talk to her straight and tell her everything.” And I tried it once; it became like a disaster. We stopped talking for maybe eight, nine months. And we didn’t see each other. Because I told her frankly that, “Listen, these certain behaviors, they hurt me. And it’s just because of the love that I feel for my brother. Because I know him and I know that it hurts him too.” First, she started denying them all, and then at the end she said she feels so sorry for me that I feel like this.

Esther: You have a partner? 

Caller: Me? No.

Esther: You both have parents?

Caller: Yes.

Esther: And your brother is close to his mom, or you are close to your mom?

Caller: My brother is a little bit closer. I don’t say very close but yes, he shows more tendency towards my mom. And compared to my father, yes.

Esther: But you have the sense that you have been the closest to your brother. 

Caller: You know, my mom was a career woman and she was a hard worker all her life. And all I can remember was that I was always taking care of him. And by the time we were in our young adulthood, we were so close. My best friends are his best friends. And I mean, he was so close to me. He was more than a brother.

Esther: More than a brother made him what? 

Caller: I don’t know, maybe I felt like he’s the only person who understands me. And admires me. But then when I saw his choice, exactly as you put it, I doubted this judgment of mine. So it all became so difficult. And then I try to forget everything and just accept the fact that it is what it is, and I have to like her, and she really wants to act as if she’s my sister, but I cannot believe it. It sounds like a whole fake scenario to me because she’s been lying a lot since the beginning, and I cannot just believe what she says.

Esther: If we were so close as I thought we were, and if he understood and admired me in the way that I thought he did, how could he have chosen this woman? 

Caller: Exactly.

Esther: And it becomes a kind of a competition. Or it becomes, maybe he never really understood me. Because if he likes what I am, how could he like her? And then it becomes a kind of a standoff. But it is actually not really about her. It is about the loss that you experience vis a vis your brother, that you interpret as being related to who he chose. It’s the fact that, I assume, he puts more energy at this moment in his relationship with her than with you. That doesn’t mean that his feelings for you have changed, but he needed to make room inside of him and around him to be able to be married and maybe have a family and basically bring other essential people. And you raised him, and you feel a sense of ownership over him. And you feel that the two of you have something unique and unknown to most people. And that basically an intruder who isn’t according to your taste has come in between and is slowly transforming him (a) taking him away from you and (b) turning him into something different. Or someone different than the person that you have known and with whom you were so tightly attached. 

But the story is about you and your brother. When you go to talk to him about her, he’s gonna say go talk to her. If you go to talk to him about you and him, and how much you miss him, and how much you don’t have your own partner at this moment, and so it feels like the partner that you had, which was your brother, is moving on. 

Caller: Well, to be honest with you I tried talking to him in this way as well, but I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t get it. Every time I said something like, “I’m missing you. We used to be so close. You don’t even ask how I am.” He’s like, “What do you want me to do?” I can understand what he’s going through as well. He’s between these two powerful women, apparently. But for me, to be honest, it’s not that I need anything from him. It’s just, I don’t want to lose this tiniest tie we have at the moment. And I feel like it’s going away. I feel like it’s disappearing, slowly.

Esther: Because a part of you goes to him with a reproach as if you are the jilted lover. Why are you not calling me? Why don’t you ask me how I am? Why do you not miss me? You’re going with a reproach. You’re not just saying, “I miss you,” or “How are you,” or “Let’s celebrate together,” or “Come visit me together,” or they can come together for a visit, and you can take an afternoon alone with him.

Caller: No, she doesn’t let him. She doesn’t let him come. Every time he used to come visit me, he used to, for example, go to the balcony and talk to her. She doesn’t like him to be with me.

Esther: No, she knows that you don’t like her, and she is marking her territory, yes. But, you know, it’s like two women fighting for the same man here, except that one is a brother and one is a husband.

Caller: But Esther, how should I fix this? I hate this.

Esther: The fixing is that your brother and you were very close in a particular context. Now, that context has changed. He has other people with whom he’s going to feel close. And maybe as close, even though differently, as he was with you. And you feel that you had an exclusive lease on him.

It helped you both. It helped you both to grow up together. You gave each other enormously. You’re allowed not to like this person and all of that. But what is happening is that you’re upset. You resent your brother for not choosing you over her. There is a competition. And if you want to preserve your brother, and if you want to keep a relationship with him, you will have to find a way to accept the reality of your brother’s life and your brother’s choice. It’s both. And you can be curious about it, and you can ask him questions about his life, and you can be inquisitive about, you know, how she’s different and what brought him to choose her, but what is happening now is that you see her as an attention seeker but so are you.  You want his attention too. And you were used to getting it above everybody else. And I don’t know to what extent you don’t have a partner because in some way you want actually the same intensity and closeness that you had with your brother.

Caller: True.

Esther: And so you go around and you say, “Nobody feels what I felt with him. In a way, we had not just a sibling love, we had a love that became something else. And it became the standard that I either will find again or I will be married to my brother symbolically for the rest of my life.”

Caller: Wow, you think so? So all these problems of mine are because of that?

Esther: I tell you what I think — that doesn’t mean I’m right. My mind goes in many directions, and you are the one who then picks up on one and says, that rings true. There’s something about that. But I told you I thought three things when I was reading your question. And this was the third. 

There is an intensity and a symbiotic tie in the love that you have for your brother that has also entered into your relationship with other men or women, whoever it is. He is the beacon. You, together, created the standard. And in a way, you see him choosing this woman as a betrayal of your standard. I thought we had something unique, different, exclusive, better than anything else. And by you choosing this other person, and the kind of person you chose, you betrayed our chart. And when you don’t meet other partners, it’s in part because you are loyal to that contract, that invisible, unspoken contract that wove itself over years of very tight sibling caretaking, reciprocity, mutuality. You’re the older? 

Caller: Yes. Five years.

Esther: That’s right. Okay. When you meet other potential partners, how much do you think about the quality of the relationship that you have with your brother? 

Caller: Well, to be honest with you, it was maybe ten years ago that I used to make that relationship as something that I would really like with my partner, that bond I wanted with my partner, but then I realized it’s not gonna happen, so it’s for the past.

Esther: And then? 

Caller: And then I tried to accept the fact, and I had a relationship for, like, five years, but we broke up because of his commitment issues. Since then, I didn’t find anybody who could actually fit into my life. But, I don’t compare anymore. I used to do that long ago. Yes, that bond was very special, but it’s been a while that it’s not anymore that special. So I think I’ve kind of passed that. Don’t you think so?

Esther: No, I don’t. 

Caller: Oh my God.

Esther: I think consciously you probably don’t think you are comparing anymore because you’re upset at your brother and therefore you no longer hold him as a beacon. But I think internally, the measurement stick is the uniqueness of the relationship that you had with your brother. And when you meet people now it’s easier to say, “They don’t fit into my life.”

I’m not so sure, let’s put it like that — I think that, um, on the face of it, you no longer compare. On what lives inside of you, deep inside of you, on what you learned was the kind of seamless harmony that you had with your brother and all of that. Many men could appear as having commitment issues in comparison with the tightness of the bond that you had with your brother. 

Caller: That’s true. And to be honest with you, I’ve stopped looking even for the past maybe one or two years. I just said, Okay, it’s not going to happen. So I stopped looking and …

Esther: I beg you not to stop. 

Caller: Really?

Esther: Because you’re going to stay married to your brother for the rest of your life if you do that. Symbolically, it’s like your brother will have been the husband you never had. And meanwhile, he will have a family and a marriage with someone else, and you will feel like he is no longer in your life because you got estranged from each other, because every time you come to him you are feeling critical and wistful, as if he’s depriving you of something which should have come to you that he’s now giving to her.

Caller: So wow, it seems to be, this issue seems to be much more important than what I was thinking. I just thought, This is the reason why I feel so alone. So what is the next step if we get practical after I accept everything? I stop comparing people who come to my life with them?

Esther: I think you have to know that you had a powerful connection with your brother that basically helped both of you grow up and that will forever remain a very special bond. But there is a difference between that sibling relationship and living an adult relationship with another person. You don’t have to emulate what you had with your brother. Because in some way, what you had with your brother was a compensation for what you didn’t have with your mother. And you were put in charge of your brother, and you were there to raise him. And in a way, raising him made you feel less lonely and less needy of mom. So instead of thinking what you were missing, you thought about what you can give. And that was wonderful. 

Take it, harness it, and now use all of that elixir and allow yourself to be loved by another man. And allow yourself to open up to another man and love someone else in return. It won’t be the same. It need not be the same. You were a child, you are an adult now. And the relationship with your brother will evolve, and what will determine it more than anything is the degree with which you accept him versus the degree to which you constantly make him feel that there’s something he should be doing that he’s not doing.

So he’s constantly falling short because you’re asking him for devotion that he used to have that now is no longer fitting. So the challenge with your brother is to transition into adulthood, and the challenge for you is to allow yourself to be a woman with another man, without holding that relationship with your brother as the symbol, the centerpiece, of what you should replicate.

Caller: Okay.

Esther: It’s too bad that you’re depriving yourself because it won’t bring you closer to your brother. In fact, to the contrary, the more he feels responsible, the more there will be distance. The more he knows that you are having a full life elsewhere with others, etc., the more he can freely come toward you without thinking that he’s owing you something. There’s a part of you that feels he owes you.

Caller: Yeah, but you know, since I left the country, I’m being blamed, kind of, about leaving everything behind.

Esther: All of this is internal. You can be in any other country, you know. He doesn’t owe you. He loves you. You’re very important to him. But he also has entered another stage of life and so do you. And that will be a little process of mourning about the love of your life, so to speak. It will be the love of your childhood, and then there will be another love in a different stage of your life right now. If he remains the love of your life you will more likely forever be sad and resentful that you lost him, angry at his wife for having taken him, and you will have become a character in a play that is not nearly as inevitable as it seems to you. This is not the triangle you have to live in. 

Caller: Yeah, you gave me a lot to think about. Thank you very much, Esther.

Esther: You’re welcome. Is this helpful?

Caller: Yes. Amazing. As always. Thank you.

Esther: Let us know what happens, okay?

Caller: Definitely.

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